May 7, 2020

photo of Gil Gallegos

Gil Gallegos

Las Vegas, N.M. – New Mexico Highlands University will use the latest machine learning and artificial intelligence data analysis aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus on the Navajo Nation, thanks to a National Science Foundation grant.

The NSF awarded Highlands a “rapid-response” $187,094 grant May 4. Highlands wrote the grant proposal in approximately two weeks of intense work in April, and it extends until May 2021.

“Many of the COVID-19 studies are using traditional methods to analyze the data,” said Gil Gallegos, the Highlands computer science professor and principal investigator, or lead researcher, for the NSF grant. “Our group will be pushing the limits on the way machine learning and artificial intelligence can be used for understanding the data.”

Gallegos said hopefully what is learned from a close examination of the data will reveal important factors that either accelerate or slow down the spread of the coronavirus on the Navajo Nation.

“We’ll hand off our scientific results to the Navajo Nation with the goal of helping mitigate the spread of coronavirus now and in the future,” Gallegos said.

Gallegos said machine learning and artificial intelligence are under the same umbrella in computer science.

“Machine learning is using computer algorithms for calculations used to analyze, predict and classify complex data sets, such as those found in COVID-19 data. With these methods, we hope to tease out important features we obtain through the public domain data.

“The use of artificial intelligence computer science methods, sometimes called deep learning, will give us more horsepower to really dig into the data in a way that has not been done before. We hope to successfully gather and analyze the existing data in a novel and beneficial way,” Gallegos said.

According to the New Mexico Department of Health website as of May 6, nearly 56% of the confirmed 4,291 COVID-19 cases in New Mexico are Native Americans, predominantly Navajo. Native Americans are less than 10.5% of the state’s population. The Navajo Nation covers portions of McKinley, Sandoval and San Juan counties.

Gallegos said the Highlands research will focus on socioeconomic and cultural factors that the National Science Foundation identifies as contributing to the spread of the coronavirus in indigenous populations.

Gallegos, who chairs the Computer and Mathematical Sciences Department at Highlands, leads the team of researchers at the university that will delve into the COVID-19 data from the Navajo Nation. Other team members include Orit Tamir, anthropology professor, and Tatiana Timofeeva, chemistry professor, both of whom are co-principal investigators. In addition, five computer science graduate students will participate in the research.

“We couldn’t be happier with our research team,” Gallegos said.

Tamir will work on correspondence and communication with the Navajo Nation, where she has developed close ties through her cultural anthropology research with the Navajo people for more than three decades.

“We plan to use publicly available data – no fieldwork – for our research,” Tamir said. “I’ll be responsible for collecting and creating a database that focuses on Navajo COVID-19 infection according to various parameters like socioeconomic and cultural. Sources will include, but are not limited to, Navajo Nation Department of Health and New Mexico Department of Health. I will also use my personal contacts on and off the reservation to collect additional information.”

Tamir said that multigenerational Navajo households contribute to the spread of COVID-19.

“There are also social inequities such as lack of running water on about 30% of Navajo Nation, making frequent hand-washing a challenge. In addition, there is a language barrier because many older Navajos are more comfortable speaking Navajo than English, contributing to confusion regarding COVID-19 and its transmission,” Tamir said.

Timofeeva will serve as the senior research manager for the grant.

“Dr. Timofeeva is a key player for us on the research team,” Gallegos said. “We will look to her for important grant reporting, as well as her good skills at organizing students to do research.”

The Highlands computer science graduate students who will work on the NSF grant include, Fernando Sarracino, who is a member of the Navajo Nation, Viktor Glebov, Jesse Ibarra, Svetlana Ryabova and Christopher Torres.

“I expect these excellent graduate students to make an important contribution to the project and gain valuable research experience,” Gallegos said.